Skim off all the bling, and “Notorious” is a rock-solid biopic with a foolproof rise-and-fall storyline and a warmly nuanced performance by Jamal Woolard as iconic rapper Christopher Wallace — aka Biggie Smalls, aka the Notorious B.I.G. Less interested in the particulars of Smalls’ 1997 slaying than in his growth and influence as an artist, the pic has a propulsive narrative drive. Although the beat-heavy Fox Searchlight release will command a rap-centric fan base, it should also hip-hop its way across demographic lines.
Helmer George Tillman Jr. seems partial to the incongruous flourish, and treats Wallace’s assassination as though it were the most significant blow to literature since the death of Keats. At the same time, “Notorious” might be considered the third in an unofficial trilogy on late 20th-century American popular music — the first two being “Bird” and “Cadillac Records.”
Woolard might have starred in all of them: As the decidedly un-svelte Smalls, he cuts a figure at once sympathetic, comic, deceptively charming and occasionally cunning. He’s an unlikely leading man, but then, Smalls was an unlikely sex symbol. It’s a good fit, and Woolard owns the movie.
The story begins with young Christopher’s nerdy upbringing in Brooklyn as the child of a single, striving mother, Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett). (That Mom calls him “Chrissie-poo” won’t do much for Wallace’s gansta legacy.) Pic then moves on to his crack-dealing, gun possession, prison time and jail-cell evolution into the baddest rapper in Brooklyn.
An alliance with fledgling music mogul Sean Combs (Derek Luke) leads to a record deal; a friendship with West Coast colleague Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) turns sour and segues into fatal confrontations. But a sense of doom never really permeates “Notorious,” which is far more concerned with one artist’s development, demons and self-realization.
While Bassett isn’t given sufficient material to show her usual depth, the supporting cast is solid overall — notably Naturi Naughton and Antonique Smith as Lil’ Kim and Faith Evans, respectively, the principal women in Smalls’ life. Mackie comes close to stealing every scene he’s in, his Shakur emitting a natural incandescence that contrasts with Biggie’s stolid darkness.
The script, by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, is often too weighted with expository luggage (“My father died hustling on these streets when I was 2 years old,” Combs says). The few times the social implications of the story are overplayed only serve to show how frequently subtle the movie really is.
With Voletta Wallace and Sean Combs among the producers of “Notorious,” it’s perhaps no surprise that their characters are portrayed as staunchly noble and, in Wallace’s case, eminently self-sacrificing. And given the cloud that continues to shadow the Biggie-Tupac feud, one might expect the film to imply guilt or conspiracies. But with the exception of the 1994 robbery in which Tupac was shot (and which he blamed on Biggie and Co.), the film takes a hands-off approach to the double murders and the venomous East Coast-West Coast rap war that generated so much ink and distraction toward the ends of the two stars’ lives.
The question of who was behind the murders is left largely to speculation, and the lack of danger in all this seems oddly antithetical to the image Biggie and Tupac left behind. But as Tillman wants to show, that image was largely just marketing — a mask for the human story he has effectively unearthed from its tabloid interment.
Production values are tops, although sometimes executed with a heavy hand. Smalls is played in the pic’s early scenes by his and Evans’ son, Christopher Jordan Wallace.